Pitfalls in Writing Police Procedurals
In January, the Chessie Chapter of Sisters in Crime presented a panel of former law enforcement officers who write mysteries and thrillers who discussed ways to avoid the pitfalls of writing police procedurals.
The panelists were:
David Swinson, a retired police detective from the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC, and author of The Second Girl, Crime Song, Trigger and City on the Edge. He lives in Northern Virginia.
Bruce Robert Coffin, award-winning author of the bestselling Detective Byron mystery series. A former detective sergeant with more than 27 years in law enforcement, he supervised all homicide and violent crime investigations for Maine’s largest city..
spent four years as a newspaper reporter before joining the Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department in 1986, where he rose to Lieutenant and served in most of the posts described in his debut novel APPREHENSION, published in 2019. Kirkus Reviews calls APPREHENSION “compelling,” and says Bergin is a “gritty and authentic new voice in police fiction.”
The Moderator was Ellen Butler, award-winning and bestselling author of the Karina Cardinal Mystery Series which takes place in Washington, D.C.
Here are a few notes from the panelists.
Mistakes in procedure are rife in mystery novels and television. Coffin said there is a big difference between television shows and real life. The shows forget that police officers are normal people with a home life and mundane chores. Swinson referred to J.D. Scott who “gets it right.” Even though he breaks all the rules, he still keeps to the correct procedure.
One of Swinson’s pet peeves is when a show or novels has a cop shoot someone and then is working the next day. “It doesn’t happen that way,” Swinson says. The cop is put on administrative leave and the shooting investigated first.
The uniformed officer is first on the crime scene, the panelists said, and he is responsible for securing the scene, taking care of the injured, rounding up witnesses, etc. Crime scene technicians bag up the evidence. If the evidence is wet or bloody, they put it in paper bags or cardboard boxes not plastic. The detectives come in later and tasked with the investigation after the fact.
In Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Police are responsible for homicides, robberies, etc., even in the White House. The FBI may offer assistance and it’s always welcomed. The FBI will not try to take over the case.
Swinson added that the detectives don’t walk the street of a crime scene. They rely on the uniformed officers.
Confidential informant (C.I.) is the guy on the street who knows the neighborhood and the people and may know the most about the crime. Bergin said the detectives try to develop a relationship with them, but they can’t be trusted. He added that criminals are master manipulators. Proceed as a baseline that everyone lies and they’re going to lie to you. Most of them aren’t evil people but they do evil things because they’re using drugs.
Bergin said he doesn’t know if there is evil but there is depravity, stupidity, bad decisions. He added that in his years as a police officer, he has only met two serial killers. “When I’m talking with a bad guy, I look for something we have in common. I try to develop a connection.”
All three panelists agreed that criminals are stupid.
How do the police work with private detectives? Swinson said the police don’t work with private eyes. They can’t be trusted. Defense attorneys or private citizens or organizations may use them, but the police do not. Every private investigator has a cop they’re close to, but a good cop is not going to give information to a P.I. unless it benefits the investigation. Otherwise, it could compromise the investigation. A private detective has no more rights than a private citizen.
How do the police work with parole officers? Swinson said they can be very helpful. Sometimes, they may have a parole officer go with the patrol officer for use in recognizing criminals on probation. Parole officers are also good sources for human information on criminals. Basically, their job is to supervise and depending on the crime, monitor and give drug tests.
Newspaper archives are a good source for historical information on police work, they suggested.